Ukrainian journalists are normally expected to benefit from the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative which should allow them to benefit from a lighter visa regime and be issued long-term multiple visas.
But a group of 20 journalists, including the chief editors of major media, arrived yesterday (15 October) in Brussels with one-entry visas, valid for two days only, starting from 15 October.
If their airline connection was to be delayed, even for one day, they would be considered in irregular situation.
The twenty journalists were invited to attend a two-day event, hosted by three Polish MEPs – Paweł Zalewski (European People's Party), Wojciech Olejniczak (Socialists & Democrats) and Paweł Kowal (European Conservatives and Reformists), titled “Integration of Ukraine with the EU”.
Keynote speakers at conference were the Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko and the former Polish President Alexander Kwaśniewski. The latter, together with former European Parliament President Pat Cox,has been tasked by the European parliament to deliver a report on Ukraine’s progress ahead of a landmark Eastern partnership summit in Vilnius on 28-29 November.
No matter how important, the statements made at the conference were eclipsed by the journalists' visa difficulties.
Several journalists said the way they had been treated by the Belgian embassy in Kyiv was scandalous. Irina Kovtun, Editor-in-Chief of ‘Delovaya Stolitsa’, the leading Ukrainian weekly business newspaper, agreed that her visa be photographed, without blurring her name or personal data.
Kovtun, who was described by her colleagues as the informal leader of the group and a journalist with enormous experience and prestige, said she didn’t believe this treatment was simply due to bureaucracy.
“It’s a matter of bad will attitude,” she said.
Some of her colleagues spoke privately in the same terms, but preferred not to be named, fearing reprisals on behalf of the EU visa authorities in Kyiv.
EurActiv asked Oleksandr Sushko, a researcher on Schengen in Ukraine and chairman of the Civil Society platform of the Eastern Partnership, to comment the incident. Sushko, who has done research and regular annual monitoring of EU’s visa-issuing practice vis-à-vis Ukrainian nationals, said that normally journalists should benefit from special arrangements, including multiple entry Schengen visas with a validity from one to five years. All the journalists in the group had applied for one-year multiple entry visas.
But according to Suschko the problem was with the Belgian embassy in Kyiv, which in his words was “the worst among consular services”, especially when the invitation originates from an EU institution, which he said was "a paradox”.
Asked whether he suspected a sabotage of EU-Ukraine relations by some obscure official at the Belgian consular office, he said that it was rather “Belgium’s policy to restrict travel for legitimate travellers”.
EurActiv has asked the Belgian foreign ministry to comment and will publish its reaction as soon as it becomes available.